When we criticize and oppose a new de facto basing agreement dubbed the “Framework Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation” between the Philippines and the United States of America, we are often met by strong, emotional reactions in connection with the territorial and maritime disputes of the Philippines with China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). We are accused of either burying our head in the sand, refusing to recognize China’s aggressive acts and intent to bully us into submission, or we are actually aiding and abetting China.
Invariably our patriotism is questioned for not wanting the Philippine government to seek US help in defending Philippine claims militarily. A more sober reaction has been to challenge us to come up with alternative approaches and concrete steps that government should take if we are against involving the US in our quarrels with our neighbors. (Note that aside from China, the Philippines has overlapping claims with Malaysia and Vietnam.)
There certainly are other ways that are valid, viable and have better chances of finding short- to medium-, if not long-term, solutions to the disputes with China. These approaches avoid counterproductive and even violent confrontation between an obviously weaker state (the Philippines) and an emerging behemoth (China), economically and militarily, that would not entail the former becoming dependent on a third party (the US) with its own primordial interests to promote and protect.
Hence while in principle it is our patriotic duty to assert our national sovereignty and territorial integrity over the issue of the Spratlys (Kalayaan) and other islands, reefs and shoals which are well within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as defined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), we must not forget that it is also in our sovereign interest to avoid involving ourselves in unnecessary displays of military force or provocations, much less a shooting war with China, no matter how we delude ourselves into thinking the US will automatically come to our aid should push come to shove in the disputed waters of the West Philippine Sea.
In light of China’s increasingly aggressive actions, for whatever reason (China claims it is the one being provoked by Philippine moves to establish physical structures on uninhabited reefs and shoals and to interdict Chinese fishermen in waters that are part of their territory), the Philippines’ counter action of bringing its case to the Arbitral Tribunal of UNCLOS last January appears reasonable despite China’s refusal to take part in the proceedings. It is a diplomatic and political move that has its pros and cons that must be weighed carefully.
It should be pointed out however that international arbitration, even if the Philippines wins its case, does not necessarily lead to the resolution of the disputes with China. As pointed out by former Philippine Permanent Ambassador to the UN, Lauro Baja, apart from the UN Security Council where China has veto power, other international bodies such as the Arbitral Tribunal do not have any means of enforcing its decisions. Everything will still redound to the realpolitik of which state has the over-all capacity to assert its claims in actuality.
China has reacted quite strongly to the filing of the Memorial seeking to nullify China’s nine-dash line map on which it bases its claim on almost the entirety of the South China Sea and has declared that such Philippine action “seriously damaged bilateral relations with China.” Invoking the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed by China and all ASEAN countries, the Philippines included, China continues to call on the Philippines “to resolve disputes over territory and maritime rights and interests through negotiations by the sovereign states directly concerned.”
The Center for People’s Governance (Cenpeg), a Filipino policy studies group, in a statement submitted to the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives on March 4, advanced the view that bilateral talks with China is worth pursuing contrary to conventional wisdom that such bilateral negotiations places the Philippines at a disadvantage from the outset. Cenpeg points out that the Philippines had in fact been negotiating bilaterally with China and had inked various agreements since diplomatic ties were reinstated in the 1970s.
“One advantage of bilateral talks is that it opens up for discussion and negotiation many nuances of a disputed issue that cannot be addressed in a strictly rules-based form of arbitration… Moreover, many sensitive political issues that cannot be openly discussed in a legal arbitration format can be better addressed and threshed out in more informal bilateral talks,” Cenpeg elaborated.
The Philippines can take a leaf from the examples of Vietnam and Malaysia that have avoided further escalation and provocation in their territorial and maritime conflicts with China compared to our official tack.
At the same time, it doesn’t help that no less than the Philippine head of state, President B.S. Aquino, continues to engage in antagonistic, even belligerent, rhetoric in almost every international forum available while seeking international support for his government’s position against China’s aggressiveness, a.k.a. “bullying.”
More important, is the recognition that involving the US, the sole Superpower now embroiled in its own deep socio-economic crisis and geopolitical quagmires, in our disputes with our neighbors is not only unhelpful, it is asking for trouble.
In the first place, the US has already stated in no uncertain terms that it is not going to involve itself in such territorial and maritime disputes. In the real world, the working relationship of the US and China is too important for both countries, grounded as it is on huge investment, trade, foreign policy and other strategic concerns, for either side to risk being drawn militarily into the other’s conflicts with its neighbors unless it has a vital interest at stake. Run-ins and even saber rattling over the islands, islets, reefs and shoals in the Spratlys and other small archipelagos in the West Philippine Sea does is insufficient casus belli for either country. Moreover, the Mutual Defense Treaty does not have an automatic retaliation clause despite all the deceptive reassurances and barefaced gullibility of our political leaders.
Should the Philippines and the US come to an agreement to increase “rotational” troop presence and the “prepositioning” of its warships and other war munitions inside Philippine territory together with more frequent holding of joint war “exercises” including in disputed waters, it is to be expected that China will consider this a provocation, part and parcel of the US containment strategy against China, with the Philippines a very willing junior partner. Objectively, such a development will lead to the heightened militarization of the West Philippine Sea and increasing the dangers of miscalculations and armed skirmishes that neither the Philippines nor China really wants.
Certainly it would be very useful all around for people-to-people exchanges and relations to be encouraged and developed in order to counter the undercurrent of big-country-chauvinism and ultranationalism in China and the matching flag-waving pseudo-nationalism and anti-Chinese racism in the Philippines that lend themselves to jingoism and other types of populist calls for retaliatory moves on both sides.
Published in Business World
April 3, 2014